Sunday, 22 May 2011

Movie Update: From Genius Ghibli To Silly Ghosts

Grave of the Fireflies


Made in 1988, Grave of the Fireflies was written and directed by Isao Takahata who hired Studio Ghibli to do the animation. The film, set in Japan towards the end of World War 2, tells the story of teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko who survive the firebombing of Kobe, though their mother sadly doesn’t. With their father away in the navy, homeless and parentless, the two children take to the road in order to survive. But Japan is now a broken and devastated country, still not having surrendered. Food is scarce. Kindness even scarcer. Living rough, Seita does his best to care for his little sister but things just go from bad to worse for the pair until their story finally reaches its horribly inescapable conclusion. Grave of the Fireflies is a devastating watch being all about the cruelty of war and the price paid by its most innocent of victims. The animation is horribly beautiful, as is the symbolism of the fireflies, which plays throughout the film - little creatures burning so brightly but dying far too soon. This is one of those films that should and does get to you. But while you can fully appreciate it for its greatness, it is also a film you simply couldn’t watch very often. It’s just too darn hard, packing a hugely painful emotional gut punch. It reminded me of Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that way. Film critic Roger Ebert considers Grave of the Fireflies to be one of the most powerful anti-war movies ever made. He’s not wrong. Devastating stuff. 5 (out of 5)

Laputa: Castle in the Sky

Hayao Miyazaki’s 1986 fantasy adventure was the first film made and released by Studio Ghibli. It tells of a young girl called Sheeta who falls from an airship and somehow lands safely in the caring hands of a young miner called Pazu. Pirates and shadowy military types are chasing Sheeta as the girl apparently holds the key to finding the mythical Laputa - a huge flying castle lost for centuries that once housed a great and highly advanced people. As to be expected this is a great movie that plays host to many of Miyazaki’s favourite themes – a love of flying, the horrors of war, respect for nature and the environment, female empowerment. It’s essentially the hero’s journey myth as young Sheeta escapes her many pursuers and on the way discovers who she really is and what she can do, all the while being ably assisted by her loyal friend Pazu. As always with Ghibli the film looks gorgeous and is crammed with wonderfully inventive design and ideas. Charming, exciting and thoughtful, Laputa: Castle in the Sky is another Ghibli movie not to be missed. 4.5 (out of 5)

Whisper of the Heart

Made in 1995, this was the first theatrical Studio Ghibli feature to be directed by someone other than Miyazaki or Takahata, and the only film to be directed by Yoshifumi Kondō, who died in 1998 aged just 47. It’s a simple, gentle, positive tale of two young people who find each other through their shared love of creativity and go on to inspire each other to do better in their art. Shizuku is a junior high school girl who loves writing – mostly lyrics for songs. Seiji is a boy of the same age who makes and plays violins. He wants to make violins for a living and would love to go to Italy to train properly. The two become close friends but Seiji soon heads off to Italy to undertake a short trail period at a famous violin making school. While he’s away, Shizuku is inspired to concentrate on her own art by writing a novel which tells the magical story of The Baron, a cat statue in Seiji’s grandfather’s antiques shop. Shizuku sets herself the deadline to finish her book as being Seiji’s return in a few weeks time. She is determined to be as talented in her own field as he is in his and dedicates herself to finishing her story no matter what. Whisper of the Heart is a delightful film that celebrates the joy to be found in creative and artistic expression for its own sake as well as how the right person can inspire you to achieve your dreams. 4 (out of 5)


Kenneth Branagh does a bang up job in bringing Marvel’s take on the Norse God of Thunder to the big screen. This was always going to be the trickiest of heroes for Marvel to translate as it has to deal with an overtly fantasy based concept of gods and mystical realms etc. But they manage it very well and make a thoroughly entertaining, fun, funny and good looking film anchored by Chris Hemsworth in the title role. A star in the making, the guy has presence, charisma and is a deft hand at comedy. And he sure swings a mean hammer. Thor fits nicely in the upper strata of Marvel films and makes me all the more excited for this summer’s Captain America: The First Avenger and next summer’s Joss Whedon written and directed The Avengers. Make mine Marvel. 4 (out of 5)

Attack the Block

Joe Cornish writes and directs this British scifi/action/comedy/thriller as invading aliens attack a block on a council estate in London. And the only defence against the savage feral alien fiends is the savage feral British youth who when not taking drugs or mugging people are up for some serious alien bashing. Poor aliens, they never stood a chance. Despite the annoying youth speak, Attack the Block is a great movie aping the antihero based siege films of John Carpenter but with the witty, slightly tongue in cheek, down to earth feel of Neil Marshall’s awesome Dog Soldiers. The film looks great, is nicely tense and properly exciting and the young cast are superb. Kudos to all involved. Respect. Innit. 4 (out of 5)

Source Code

Duncan Jones’s follow up to his excellent debut Moon is a sci fi tale that plays like an extended episode of The Outer Limits mixed with a hefty dose of classic 90’s TV series Quantum Leap. And that’s a good thing. Jake Gyllenhaal is the soldier who’s mind keeps being sent back in to the body of a man on a train for the final 8 minutes of his life until a bomb goes off. Jake’s mission is to identify the train bomber in order to help prevent a future attack, nothing more. For some reason his superiors tell him he can’t alter the outcome of this train attack and to just stick to the mission he’s been given. But the presence of ultra-cute and sweet Michelle Monaghan on the seat opposite who’s destined to die in the explosion makes Jake determined to try and stop the inevitable no matter what his orders are. Source Code is a lot of fun. Most of that fun comes from trying to work out the truth of Jake’s situation and why he apparently can’t save the train. Also his relationship with Michelle Monaghan helps make the film. She’s lovely and you can fully understand why he’d do anything to save her. A quality scifi thriller with an emotional core, Source Code is good stuff and another feather in the cap for Mr Jones. 4 (out of 5)


Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne move in to a new house with their three kids. Almost immediately ghostly goings on kick off and one of their kids falls in to a coma. So, as Eddie Murphy once wisely suggested about haunted houses in his stand up routine, the family quickly relocates to a new home, away from the spooks. But like those annoying relatives you just can’t ditch, the ghosties only go and follow them to their new home. Doh! So when this kinda spooky thing happens, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? Nope. Lin Shaye apparently. Um, okay. Now, to be fair, there is some good stuff in Insidious. Saw director James Wan handles the early set-up pretty well making it nicely tense and subtly creepy with some good jump scares thrown in. It’s solidly relatable too as spooky things start happening to apparently normal people in a normal home. But once nutty psychic Lin Shaye and her two goofy tech guys enter the fray to provide wildly bizarre information dumps, it all gets monstrously silly. Up till now Insidious has been a fun and reasonably effective little spookfest that played like a low budget Poltergeist meets Paranormal Activity with a smidge of The Exorcist. But suddenly it goes totally bonkers with Lin Shaye in a gas mask (?), crap CGI, and Patrick Wilson astral travelling to another dimension. Poor Nite Owl. Looking like he wants to fire his agent, Patrick wanders around in slow motion through 80’s dry ice while dodging stupid looking ghosts and a hoofed demon who looks like Darth Maul and Freddy Kreuger’s love child. C’mon, Dave Grohl was scarier in Tenacious D’s Greatest Song in the World video. As you can probably guess, this film had totally lost me. I was laughing way too hard. It was Lin Shaye in her gas mask that set me off. Plus there’s the cheesy ghosts and the hoofy demon looking utter pants, only being effective in the quick glimpses we get of them earlier on. Insidious ends up like some silly mash-up of Poltergeist, Paranormal Activity and crap homage to Argento/Fulci surrealism. If they’d retooled the third act and dumped the stupid astral travelling/dry ice stuff this could have been an effective little spookfest – a half-decent Paranormal Activity meets Poltergeist job. As it is, it’s just a very silly film that I found unintentionally hilarious. Still, points for making me laugh. And for Rose Byrne being very cute in her PJs. 2.5 (out of 5)

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